Hepatitis is a blood-borne virus that can cause extensive and irreparable damage to the liver. The most common types—hepatitis A, B, and C—follow significantly different paths in their spread and treatment, but here are some of the basics:
Hepatitis A can be contracted through the ingestion of even microscopic amounts of fecal matter through close person-to-person contact, sexual contact with an infected person, or through ingestion of contaminated food or beverages.
Hepatitis B and C may both be contracted through contact with infected blood, including children born to mothers who are infected, sexual contact with an infected partner, inadvertent “sticks” with needles or other sharp instruments, or sharing contaminated needles or syringes. Hepatitis B can also be contracted through the above means of contact with semen or other bodily fluids in addition to contact with blood.
Once infected, symptoms of viral hepatitis vary among individuals but are similar regardless of what type of infection (A, B, or C) is contracted. Such symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Gray-colored bowel movements
TALK WITH YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
Your pharmacist and physician can provide you with detailed information about immunizations for hepatitis A and B. Currently, the CDC recommends both vaccinations for infants and children (at different ages). In addition, certain adult populations should seriously consider vaccination, including travelers to areas where hepatitis A is common, men who have sex with men and persons with multiple sexual partners, users of illegal injectable drugs, persons with clotting disorders, persons with chronic liver disease or certain renal diseases, healthcare workers, and those who share living quarters with others who are infected.
HEPATITIS C SCREENING
Hepatitis C is a life-threatening, often undiagnosed infection that affects an estimated 3.2 million Americans. While vaccinations are available for hepatitis A and B, there is no immunization for hepatitis C. That’s why screening for it is so important.
The CDC and Veterans Healthcare Administration recommend screening for all adults born between 1945 and 1965. Those so-called “Baby Boomers” have been observed to have a higher incidence rate than many other populations. First, blood supplies were not routinely tested until the early ‘90s. In addition, veterans are reportedly five times more likely to be infected; research into a possible connection with the “air gun” inoculators used on new recruits is ongoing. Persons who have come in contact with needles—from drug use, tattoos, or an accidental “stick” in a healthcare setting, for example—represent another population at risk.
Early diagnosis is critical. Antivirals are typically successful in treating 50 to 90 percent of hepatitis C infections. While in the past much focus has been placed on providing supportive treatments and monitoring regularly for liver disease progression, advances in drug therapies have changed the landscape substantially in just the last couple of years. New treatments with certain specialty medications promise a high level of success in actually curing the disease.
For more on hepatitis C screening, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which maintains an extensive library of resources on the disease.